The fear and despair I’m feeling right now are mostly due to three beliefs: that such killings a) might have been inevitable, b) will certainly only make things worse, and c) may well happen again.
Black Lives Matter is of course both a slogan and a movement, and the movement’s leaders have disavowed violence against police officers. But America is certainly fond of binary thinking of the “you’re with us or against us” variety. Onlookers have gathered in a circle around this conflict like a group of children yelling “Fight! Fight!” Especially those who have drawn a line of allegiance between BLM and The Police, and have donned their #AllLivesMatter, #BlueLivesMatter, and “I Can Breathe” t-shirts to signify which side they’ve chosen.
My friend Ed Brayton remarked that he was experiencing writer’s block in the wake of the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille, followed by the killing of five police officers in Dallas. But he still managed to make the following observation that I think should be preserved:
This is not the least bit surprising to anyone who has paid attention to the problem over the years. And so we have the Black Lives Matter movement protesting against such injustice and brutality. And while you may dislike some of their tactics, they are right on the core issue. Our criminal justice system really is racist from top to bottom. Anyone who denies that cannot possibly have seen all the data that supports it, data that I have been presenting for more than a decade. And then we have two men who gunned down 11 police officers in Dallas on Thursday night, at the end of a long and peaceful protest against this injustice. What they did is horrifying and wrong in every possible way and it will do nothing but undermine efforts to address the problem. But unlike the unjust and racist treatment of black people in this country, that is an incident that is merely anecdotal, not systemic. But let’s also recognize that it was virtually inevitable. I have been saying this for years: When you oppress people, you radicalize them. If you do nothing to address legitimate grievances and fix problems, it is inevitable that some small portion of the victims of that oppression are going to choose violence as a response. That doesn’t justify it, but it does help explain it. If you cannot change as a result of non-violent protest, you make violent protest inevitable. And here’s the real problem: All this does is perpetuate the cycle of violence. Like the Hatfields and McCoys, every act of violence is then used to justify the next reprisal, which is then used to justify the next one, and the next one. At some point, the violence has to stop. But the only ones who can really stop it are those with power, which means law enforcement, courts and politicians. Violence on the part of those who protest against state-sanctioned killing is a response to the misuse of power, not an expression of power. It is up to those with power to fix this. No one else can.
What I fear is that Ed is right…but that those with power will not fix this. That they will just double down, using the killing of these officers as justification.
By all accounts, BLM and the police of Dallas actually had a decent relationship prior to the post-protest ambush, and hopefully will manage to repair that relationship in the wake of it. The same probably cannot be said of Baton Rouge. But that’s kind of the point– these things differ from state to state, city to city. Police departments have different approaches, including Richmond, California police chief Chris Magnus’s decision to stress de-escalation and the development of a positive relationship with citizens above all else.
Here in Wichita, a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally last Tuesday led both protesters and police to declare the event a success, and they’re holding a cookout tonight, in lieu of another march, in the spirit of improving community relations.
All of which tells me that progress is being made on a local level. Quantifiable measures like the increase of police departments using body cameras are one way to recognize this, but of course body cams aren’t a panacea– no simple increase in accountability can be, though we still absolutely need increased accountability!
But what we also need, so very desperately, is a paradigm shift. Nationally, we have to recognize that being opposed to racism and brutality in a police force is absolutely not the same as being anti-cop (any more, as one meme noted, than being anti-child abuse is the same as being anti-parent).
We have to acknowledge that the more police officers are different and separated from the communities in which they operate, the more empathy for people in those communities is diminished. No police department is an occupying force. Every police department is composed of human beings entrusted with tremendous power and authority to enforce the law, who are still human beings. For better and for worse.
The “for betters” like the examples of Chris Magnus, like Wichita’s police chief Gordon Ramsay (yes, our police chief’s name is Gordon Ramsay and he’s organizing a cookout– what?) should be encouraged, rewarded, and perpetuated.
And when it comes to the “for worse,” to the biases and cover-ups and abuses…there are ways to counteract these. We absolutely must work to counteract these. Our local communities and our national community depend on it.